Miss. high court asks about death row appeals

Published 3:10 am Sunday, November 1, 2009

The Mississippi Supreme Court intends to keep tabs on post-conviction appeals by death row inmates.

On Thursday, the Supreme Court questioned attorneys and judges on the status of nine post-conviction claims, some dating back five years. The Supreme Court asked trial judges why they have not ruled — or scheduled hearings — on those cases.

“The court has undertaken a systematic review of all pending post-conviction death penalty cases and has sought information on the status of cases for which there appears to be a lack of activity,” Chief Justice Bill Waller Jr. said in a statement.

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“We will systematically review the status of death penalty post-conviction cases…to assure that the fair and efficient administration of justice is being carried out.”

The Supreme Court gave the trial judges and attorneys 60 days to respond to the orders. If not, the justices said they may force on the trial judges a timetable to render decisions.

In a post-conviction petition, an inmate argues he has found new evidence — or a possible constitutional issue — that could persuade a court to order a new trial.

At least four of the cases involve claims of mental disability by Willie C. Russell in Sunflower County, Ricky Chase in Copiah County, Ronnie Lee Conner in Lauderdale County and Kevin Scott in Bolivar County.

Court records show the Supreme Court ordered a mental disability hearing for Russell in 2003. Similar hearings were ordered for Chase and Conner in 2004, and Scott in 2006.

Regarding Scott, the Supreme Court said it wants to know from Scott’s attorneys and prosecutors why no hearing date has been scheduled. Scott was sentenced to death in the 1995 fatal shooting of Richard Lee of Boyle.

In the cases of Russell, Chase and Conner, the Supreme Court wanted to know why no ruling on mental disability had been issued.

Russell was convicted for the 1989 killing of Parchman prison guard Argentra Cotton. Chase was convicted for the 1989 slaying of an elderly Copiah County vegetable salesman. Conner was convicted for the 1990 kidnapping, robbery and killing of Celeste Brown in Lauderdale County.

In the remaining five cases, the Supreme Court asked why:

— No post-conviction motion had been filed for Fred Sanford Spicer Jr. in George County. In 2007, the court gave Spicer permission to seek a hearing on his claims that his attorney should have done a better job at his sentencing hearing. Spicer was convicted in the 2001 slaying of Edmond Herbert of George County.

— No decision had been issued in the case of Joseph Patrick Brown even though a hearing on Brown’s claims of ineffective counsel was held in 2004. Brown was convicted for the 1992 killing of a convenience store clerk in Natchez.

— No decision had been reached in Marlon Todd Howell’s challenge to testimony that he was the shooter in the 2001 slaying of a Tupelo newspaper carrier during a robbery. The Supreme Court said Howell’s petition had been pending in Union County since October 2008.

— Willie Jerome Manning’s post-conviction petition in still pending in Oktibbeha County. The petition was filed in 2004. Manning was convicted of in the 1992 deaths of Tiffany Miller and Jon Steckler.

— No post-conviction petition had been filed for Clyde Wendell Smith in Leflore County on the issue of mental disability. In 2004, the Supreme Court gave Smith permission to file the petition. Smith was given the death penalty for the 1992 slaying of a package store owner.